Arizona Scientists Involved In NASA's Search For Life On Mars

By Madeline Nelson
Published: Monday, December 23, 2019 - 5:05am
Updated: Sunday, January 12, 2020 - 7:31pm

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engineers observed the first driving test for NASA
NASA/JPL-Caltech
In a clean room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, engineers observed the first driving test for NASA's Mars 2020 rover on Dec. 17, 2019.

NASA is sending another rover to Mars to better understand the planet and look for signs of life. If all goes according to plan, the mission will be the first to bring samples from Mars back to Earth.

The Mars 2020 rover is about the size of a compact car. It looks similar to the Curiosity rover that’s currently on the Red Planet because the new rover is made of mostly spare parts.

It’s mission has been about five years in the making. Along with getting a better understanding of our neighboring planet, the unnamed rover will also be searching for signs of life and testing conditions to prepare for future human exploration.

The destination? The Jezero Crater, a spot known for previously hosting a lake 30 miles in diameter and possessing the best possibility for life on another planet this close to Earth.

Ken Herkenhoff is a scientist at the Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff.

Jezero Crater
NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU
NASA's Mars 2020 will land in Jezero Crater.

He’s working on a team that created the cameras that will provide a 3D view of what the rover sees. He said Jezero is a promising landing site.

“There’s a lot of craters on Mars, and this one looks different from a lot of those craters because it has the delta so we can tell that there was once a river flowing into this lake and then there’s also a channel on the opposite side of the crater where the water drained out. It was filled to capacity and actually overflowed," Herkenhoff said. 

Jim Bell is the principal investigator on the project. He says while the main focus of the mission is to better understand Mars, scientists hope they’ll also find signs of life.

“We’re looking for the same kinds of things geologists are looking for out on a field site on Earth where they’re trying to put together both the history of the geology at that place and possibly the history of biology or whether it was an environment that could have supported biology," Bell said. 

A few minerals on Mars are particularly good at trapping past forms of life, or bio-signatures. Since the planet’s surface has been a harsh environment for billions of years, the rover is equipped with a drill attachment to dig for microscopic fossils.

Ryan Anderson is a physical scientist at the Astrogeology Center with Herkenhoff. He’s working on the SuperCam team and, more specifically, on a laser that will help scientists learn more about the minerals on Mars.

“It just zaps the rock and turns a little tiny bit of it into a spark of plasma and then it collects the light from the plasma and then you can use that to tell which chemical elements are in the rock," Anderson said. 

NASA
This artist's concept depicts astronauts and human habitats on Mars. NASA's Mars 2020 rover will carry a number of technologies that could make Mars safer and easier to explore for humans.

From there, scientists will have a better understanding of the chemistry and climate within the lake and reveal what kind of life could have survived.

The chances of finding evidence of past life are low, but there is a general consensus that if bio-signatures are found, a new door would open in the search for extraterrestrial life.

“It’s certainly fun to think about," Herkenhoff said. 

Anderson adds, “I think it’s almost certain that there’s life elsewhere in the universe.” 

And Bell said, “So it’s not crazy to think that there might even be places in our own solar system where there’s other life out there waiting for us to find it.” Bell 

The details of how the samples will make it back to Earth are still being decided, just like the rover’s name. NASA hosted a naming contest with K-12 students and is announcing the winner soon.

The rover is scheduled to launch out of Florida this summer and is expected to land in the crater in early 2021. It will spend about two Earth years on the Red Planet completing collecting samples.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify the length of the rover's mission.

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